May 012017
 

Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, on a winning streak. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

Back in the day when nouvelle cuisine was firing up the new chefs of Europe, I wrote in the introduction to my first cookbook, published in 1986, that Italy, a country that has complained about the excesses of French cooking since the 16th century, would never succumb to it. Take, as an example, the words of Gerolamo Zanetti, a 16th century Venetian, which are still uttered by modern Italians:

French cooks have ruined Venetian stomachs with so [many] sauces, broths, extracts… in every dish… meat and fish transformed to such a point that they are scarcely recognizable by the time they get to the table,” wrote Gerolamo Zanetti, a 16th century Venetian. “Everything is masked and mixed with a hundred herbs, spices, sauces.”

I’ve had to eat my words many times since I embarked on that introduction, most recently after descending on Milan for a gastronomical summit arranged in part by the Italian Trade Agency, the Conzorzio of Grana Padano producers, Berlucchi sparkling wines, and other sponsors; in part with Identità Golose (literally, “Identity, Gluttonous”), the elite, Milan-based  fellowship of cooks, chefs, pizzaioli, pastry-makers, food producers, critics, and food experts.

Identità Golose founder Paolo Marchi, left, announces the Chef-of-the-Year, Riccardo Camanini. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

For three days glitterati of the food world gathered in the city famous for, among other things, panettone and its eponymous veal chop, to smash the tired stereotypes of Italian food and further advance the notion of the nuova cucina italiana, an idea that was born at the turn of the millennium on the heels of the French food revolution that never died. “It is to make the world realize that the cucina italiana [of] pizza, pasta, risotto, and smiles, is a folkloristic stereotype that can be erased through excellent products and chefs who… break with the past,” said conference founder, philosopher, and wine critic Paolo Marchi who, along with his disciples, feels that Italy’s cooking has been limited for far too long by tired traditions and provincial tastes.

“We have to overcome [this]… [because] when people speak in absolute terms and truths … they close themselves off… Even what today is tradition is now innovation.”

Tagliolini in the glass case at Peck, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

What, is the Nuova Cucina Italiana?

Risotto marchesi. Photo: Marchesi alla Scala, Milan

For an answer, we need to step back into the 20th century to Gualtiero Marchesi, iconoclast, pioneer, painter, pianist, and thinker descended from five generations of performers at Teatro alla Scala, and chefs that cooked for kings, queens, and artistic royalty in a city reknowned for opera, food, and fashion. The most famous of Marchesi’s masterpieces, risotto made with edible gold and saffron, which we inhaled at his restaurant inside the city’s La Scala opera house, is a thing of beauty, delicacy, and taste. The chef, who first learned to cook at his family’s Milan hotel restaurant where he was born in situ in 1930, struck out for France in the 1980s in the ferment of nouvelle cuisine, learning from the master chefs of the era’s legendary Michelin-starred restaurants. He returned to Milan with a clear vision for a revolutionary restaurant of his own where he would bring to his food not only artistic refinement, but the application of science.

“Italian cuisine was essentially domestic cooking… too vulgar, too common,” he told the Wall Street Journal in a 2010 interview. He was awarded a Michelin star early in the first year he opened on Bonvesin de la Riva in 1977, and another the following year.  Seven years later, he became the first chef outside of France to earn three Michelin stars, a distinction rarely achieved by any chef in a lifetime, only to return the awards in 1985.

He took Italian cooking to meteoric heights with dishes that stupefied, like “quattro pasta,” four different pastas served up on a mirror in homage to Andy Warhol; or “dripping di Pesce,” a baby squid dish that takes after a Jackson Pollock canvas. At a private dinner I attended in 2007 at Alma, a cooking academy in the peripheries of Parma where he presided as dean, Marchesi presented a dish of pressed edible blossoms that astonished for its beauty and success in preserving the flowers’ natural flavor despite the transformation it underwent.

Chef Carlo Cracco with his sous chefs performing at Identità Golose Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

Chef Paolo LoPriore.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and other boundary-pushing figures, like Carlo Cracco, Paolo LoPriore, and perhaps most familiar to Americans, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, who took three Michelin stars in 2011 and first place in the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants competition with dishes like compressed pasta e fagioli.

At the summit, Paolo LoPriore talked about preserving “the beauty of the past, changing only what has to be changed” while at the same time as he masterfully butchered and filleted a sweet water fish, the focus of his lesson. “The Lenten rules imposed by the Church for meatless meals gave great potential to the cuisine,” he said.

Destructed “taroz.”

Such figures in the Marchesi mould continue to “smash the folkloristic stereotypes” by deconstructing familiar dishes, like the reformed “taroz” we were presented with the day after on a tour of Lombardy’s Valtellina region, the northern side of the Alpine watershed.  At La Présef, a Michelin-star restaurant at La Fiorida Agriturismo there, master Chefs Gianni Tarrabini and Franco Aliberti prepared traditional and reconstructed versions of the recipe, a rib-sticking dumpling of potato, green beans, onion, pancetta, and the local Bitto DOP cow’s milk cheese. If the first was rustic, the new version was a revelation: light and brimming with the flavors of the mountain terroir.

“Travel Around the World With Your Eyes and Ears Open”

So began Bottura, reflecting the convention’s 2017 theme, “The Journey.” If Marchesi conquered France and brought back nouvelle cuisine, his disciples are criss-crossing the globe. While American chefs are leading a charge to grow and advocate for local ingredients and celebrate regional differences on their menus—a movement that was inspired by the ancient food culture of this land–the overarching message of the summit was the cross-fertilization of ideas.

Lamb riblet in the style of “La Milanese” over lemon potato puree at Seta at Mandarino Oriental, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

“It’s a renaissance we’re going through now, a rebirth from the dead, and cross-contamination of ideas, like Nordic, nouvelle cuisine, Spanish,” said Bottura. “Basta with these risotti!… We’re becoming aware of our own past…. The most important ingredient for cooks of the future is culture.”

Chef Massimo Bottura.

On the restaurant menus, raw fish is the rage, and costolette alla milanese is ancient history. In the cutting edge restaurants you’re more likely to find raw lamb riblets flash-fried with a golden coating than golden, crumb-coated, butter-fried veal chops. Or to encounter high-wire acts like rigatoni over lamb’s lettuce anointed with licorice and grated oil butter; iced sea water puffs with oregano ice cream on the side; or foreign-inspired dishes like suckling pig with guacamole.

To quote Marchi, “Tiramisù has invaded the world and [Italy was] invaded by sushi.”

Rare blue lobster, raw, with savory zabaione, mushrooms and cardoons Gobbo di Nizza Monferrato IGP, at Seta at Mandarino Oriental, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

What About Your Grandmother’s Pasta e Ceci?

Keeping up with the collapsing of gastronomical borders and explosion of ideas that characterize the new Italian cuisine is nothing if not dizzying. While professionals “learn how to cook clean, concentrated, and organized” in the French restaurant tradition, there is something very different happening on the home front. Women, once the keepers of those arts, are running board meetings and performing surgeries; fewer and fewer are in the kitchen making ragù. And the nonnas padding around the kitchen in their slippers making gnocchi are largely on their way out. The result is a shrinking of critical cooking skills, even an acceptance of convenience foods offered in the supermarkets that increasingly edge out local farmers markets that were once the heart and soul of every town.

Butcher Angelo Dossena with the proper veal chops for true costolette alla milanese for sale at Peck in Milano. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

“La Milanese”

In this city on the cutting edge of everything from art to finance, fashion to lighting, furniture design to cuisine, we soaked up an orgy of ideas and flavors, grateful for the opportunity to rub elbows with the great chefs of Europe. On our last night in Milan, my friends and I headed over to a fine little trattoria a few paces from Gualtieri’s alter at La Scala for our last supper of pizza with a side order of costolette alla milanese. It made me think of chefs at New York’s tony Per Se who’ve told me they hit the good food trucks after they change out of their “whites” and head home after a three-star performance. Sometimes, smiles are good enough.

The Duomo of Milan with its campanile, designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante, and other architects. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

 

Dec 312016
 

Zabaione alla veneziana with pear and chocolate shavings, on board the Eolo. | Photo: Copyright Paolo Spigariol, 2016

This is a shortie, but it occurred to me to pass this festive little recipe along to you all for ushering in the first day of 2017. It’s from my Venetian friend Mauro Stoppa, host and skipper of the Eolo, who learned it from a local contessa and well-known cooking teacher, Fulvia Sesani. He serves this liquorous treat on board when the weather is nippy, and of course, during the winter holidays.

Whipping up some zabaione with my fellow gluttons in the kitchen of Gianni Gagliardo Vineria di Barolo, Piemonte, a few years back. Sorry, I don’t remember names, except for Bill Marsano’s, far right.

You could say that zabaione is Italy’s answer to eggnog (which some etymologists place in the Middle Ages), except that its origins go back at least as far as the late Roman period, to a drink called “sabaja,” a type of beer enriched with egg and liquor. Piemonte claimed it as its own after a cook for the 16th century king Carlo Emanuele I figured out how to cook it without scrambling the eggs.

Whisking the ingredients together over a double boiler. | Photo: Courtesy of Veneziani a Tavola

Beaten yolks, sweetened, spiked with liquor, and whipped until it is pale and billowy is warmed over a gentle bagnomaria (“bain-marie” or double boiler) has become universally Italian, whether it is fortified with Madeira, Marsala, passito, vin santo, rum, or some other spirit. Mauro Stoppa makes it the Venetian way, using Prosecco, the way the contessa taught him.It’s ideal as a salsetta for biscotti, or as a filling for spongecake. Here’s the recipe.

A glass of zabaione alla venetiana with torta di ricotta (rear on plate), typical Venetian cookies called “esse” (left), and amaretti (right) on board the Eolo. | Photo: Copyright Paolo Destefanis 2016

The Eolo’s zabaione alla veneziana
(adapted from the Venetian contessa and cooking teacher, Fulvia Sesani)
For 4 people

8 organic egg yolks
about 6-8 teaspoons granulated white sugar
5-6 tablespoons Prosecco
chocolate bits or shavings for serving
4 pear slices, coated with lemon juice to prevent discoloring, if you like
equipment: four short serving glasses or small goblets

1. Fill the lower half of a double boiler with enough water to warm the insert, making sure that it doesn’t reach up as far as the bottom of the pan that will be placed over it—this is critical to prevent the yolks from cooking, and also to release the aroma of the Prosecco. (If you don’t have a double boiler, simply use a saucepan and with a stainless or copper bowl positioned over it).

2. Working over the insert of the double boiler or the metal bowl off the flame, crack the eggs, emptying the yolks into it and discarding the egg whites (better, set them aside for making meringues or for some other purpose). Add the sugar.

3 Bring the water to a simmer over medium-low heat and using a whisk or a hand electric beater, whip together until the mixture becomes pale and foamy. Keep in mind that if the flame is too high, the eggs will cook rather than froth, and you’ll have to start over from scratch. Beat in the Prosecco to blend.

4 Pour the zabaione into the individual serving glasses or goblets. If using pear slices, fix them onto the rim of each glass. Sprinkle the zabaione with the chocolate. Eat warm or cool. Serve with biscotti, or not.

 

Dec 302016
 
For New Year's: Lentils and Sausages for Luck and Plenty

Lentils and pork sausages, the first to represent coins, the second for abundance, served up together, has long been considered an auspicious dish with which to usher in the New Year in some parts of Italy. Take Modena’s lenticchie di Capodanno, braised lentils crowned with zampone, a delicate mixture of finely ground pork subtly seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and black pepper stuffed into a pig’s trotter; or cotechino, a similar sausage, sans the trotter. One or the other is obligatory eating when the clock strikes midnight everywhere north of Rome—sumptuous eating, but not easily reproduced outside of Modena […more…]

Aug 252016
 
A Meal to Meditate: Spaghetti all'amatriciana

The quake struck Amatrice and the surrounding area at 3:36 a.m. — amazingly, almost the exact same time as the one that devastated L’Aquila and Abruzzi in 2009, which killed over 300. Some of the dead, this time, were tourists. Travelers go to Amatrice in August for the mild climate, an evening stroll and spaghetti all’amatriciana — a dish famous all over the world, invented by local shepherds in the Middle Ages. This week, the town was getting ready for the 50th annual festival dedicated to the celebrated sauce. Luckily, most visitors had left for the night. But the Hotel […more…]

Aug 232016
 
Italy's Sweetest Little Salsa: "Exploded Tomatoes"

I’ve had a stellar crop of cherry tomatoes this year and they’re ripening on the vine faster than I can pick them, never mind eat them. Time for one of Italy’s sweetest little tomato sauces —pomodorini scoppiati, literally, “exploded cherry tomatoes.” The recipe and story just out in Zester Daily today, here.  

Aug 192016
 
Consider Venice's Golden Cookies

Zaletti are one of Venice’s favorite biscotti. Made with the region’s favorite grain, corn polenta, and often served with a fruit sauce for dipping, you could call them Venice-in-a-cookie. My ever curious friend, James Beard award winning author, chef, and master baker Greg Patent was intrigued when I told him that I like to have them for breakfast alongside a cup of cappuccino. So he made them and wrote up the recipe with step-by-step photos for his terrific blog, The Baking Wizard, here. Their name comes from the Venetian word for yellow, “zalo.” Ground corn, or polenta, substitutes for wheat throughout […more…]

Mar 262016
 
The Olive Oil Scandals: Italy Fights Back

A trip to Rome at this time of year is usually timed for a feast on the region’s spring vegetables that overflow in the market stalls and somehow seem to taste better in the Eternal City than they do anywhere else. But this year, I was in Rome on a mission to hear what the Italian government had to say about the state of the country’s olive oil production, whose reputation has been damaged by scandal after scandal in recent years—and the bad publicity just doesn’t seem to let up. Here’s my report from a high-powered conference called by government officials and the country’s consortium of […more…]